Dr. Elisabeth Hagen left the USDA in December of 2013, leaving the position of the USDA’s Undersecretary for Food Safety vacant and President Obama chose not to fill it for the remainder of his term.

Trump got Ted McKinney in as the USDA’s Undersecretary for Agriculture Trade and Foreign Affairs and my old friend from Nebraska, Greg Ibach, as the Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Affairs almost immediately after he put his left hand on a bible and raised his right.

He finally got around to nominating Dr. Mindy Brashears last Spring, more than two years after taking over the Oval Office, as the next Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA, the highest ranking food safety official in the federal government.

I guess if the title contains words like “Trade” and “Marketing” our President thinks they are more important than titles that include “Food Safety”.

The Senate Ag Committee drug its heels on her hearing while drafting and debating the Farm Bill, and by the time Dr. Brashears got her Senate confirmation hearing followed by a bipartisan vote to advance her nomination to the full Senate body the clock was ticking on the 2018 version of the U.S. Senate.

Plus the Senate was now preoccupied with trying to find a way to keep the government running.

The wall was much more important than having the top food safety position filled.

In some fairness to the Republican leadership of the Senate, if he had advanced her nomination to vote of the body, by law the Democrats can debate the vote for up to thirty hours, basically shutting the Senate down. 

Heck of a way to run a government.

So we get to 2019 and President Trump has to re-nominate Dr. Brashears. There is some debate as to whether or not she will have to go through the stress of another Senate Ag hearing.

So, while not quite declaring a national emergency, as his Boss has threatened if he does not get his way, Secretary Perdue has named Dr. Brashears as the USDA’s Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, a position not needing Senate confirmation. But also a position not carrying the political clout and importance of the Senate confirmed the version of the Undersecretary.

She started Jan. 29, the day of the announcement. It seems she had moved the family and personal belongings to the D.C. area some time ago, leaving her paying job at Texas Tech and feeling the pain of no paycheck along with 800,000 federal employees.

I think the early move had something to do with her youngest daughter enrolling for the second semester of her senior year of high school, but what a nerve-wracking mess. And she has less than two years to get something positive done.

Heck of a way to run a government.

Asians especially place great importance on titles, and a Deputy Undersecretary will not get seated at the “big table.” Heck, she might not even get invited to visit unless she promises to buy their chicken meat. But the Vice Minister for Food Safety in China knows that as a Deputy Undersecretary she does not have the clout to back up that promise — it has been made too many times already.

The Australians and New Zealanders will simply smile and say to themselves, again; “We are so much better organized and more efficient than the United States.”

Much of Asia will say a dictatorship gets things accomplished but democracy gets stuck in the mud trying to see which way the wind is blowing to secure the next election.

The EU still won’t buy our chickens and beef until a person that can speak for the U.S. is in the chair of the Undersecretary.

And until she gets that confirmation, she will not have the political clout necessary to Chair the U.S. government’s Codex Alimentarius steering and advisory committee.

That committee consists of the Food Safety and Inspection System, the Trade and Foreign Affairs Office, and the Marketing and Regulatory Affairs Office of the USDA.

But it also includes representatives from the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) at the FDA, and representatives from State, Commerce, Treasury and the U.S. Trade Office among others.

Big Time Players.

How is a Deputy that is not Senate confirmed expected to butt heads with the likes of McKinney and Ibach who have been in place for two years and have learned the ropes and who their friends and enemies are, much less some career folks from State and Commerce?

The Undersecretary for Food Safety also co-chairs, along with the Director of CFSAN, the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF). 

So there are at least two Chair positions that have not had an Undersecretary fulfilling those important obligations for over five years now.   

Secretary Perdue made a good move to get Dr. Brashears inside the Jamie Whitten Building and in her temporary office two doors down from the Undersecretary’s office, and also at the weekly briefings in “The Cage.” 

At least she can start learning the players, and who will be on her side, who will quietly work against her agenda, and who will simply say “she has less than two years, we can wait her out”.

I was advised 13 years ago that there are two sayings in D.C. that you need to remember, and I am sure someone has so advised Dr. Brashears.

  1. When two or more people are having a conversation it is a public meeting and may be reported in the Washington Post
  2. You have no trustworthy friends in D.C. except your dog, and don’t be too sure about him or her.

Heck of a way to run a government.

Editor’s note: This opinion column was originally posted be Feedstuffs and is posted here with permission.

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